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The Book of Barely Imagined Beings: A 21st Century Bestiary

by Caspar Henderson

Other authors: Golbanou Moghaddas (Illustrator)

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
387851,718 (4)6
From medieval bestiaries to Borges's Book of Imaginary Beings, we've long been enchanted by extraordinary animals, be they terrifying three-headed dogs or asps impervious to a snake charmer's song. But bestiaries are more than just zany zoology--they are artful attempts to convey broader beliefs about human beings and the natural order. Today, we no longer fear sea monsters or banshees. But from the infamous honey badger to the giant squid, animals continue to captivate us with the things they can do and the things they cannot, what we know about them and what we don't. With The Book of Barely Imagined Beings, Caspar Henderson offers readers a fascinating, beautifully produced modern-day menagerie. But whereas medieval bestiaries were often based on folklore and myth, the creatures that abound in Henderson's book--from the axolotl to the zebrafish--are, with one exception, very much with us, albeit sometimes in depleted numbers. The Book of Barely Imagined Beings transports readers to a world of real creatures that seem as if they should be made up--that are somehow more astonishing than anything we might have imagined. The yeti crab, for example, uses its furry claws to farm the bacteria on which it feeds. The waterbear, meanwhile, is among nature's "extreme survivors," able to withstand a week unprotected in outer space. These and other strange and surprising species invite readers to reflect on what we value--or fail to value--and what we might change. A powerful combination of wit, cutting-edge natural history, and philosophical meditation, The Book of Barely Imagined Beings is an infectious and inspiring celebration of the sheer ingenuity and variety of life in a time of crisis and change.… (more)
  1. 00
    The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges (Michael.Rimmer)
    Michael.Rimmer: Both bestiaries, one fantastical (Borges) an inspiration for the other, factual (Henderson).
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» See also 6 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 8 (next | show all)
“This book is an attempt to better understand and imagine being and beings,” I do not think there is a better way to capture what the book is about than the one chosen by the author. Do not be fooled by the title, The Book of Barely Imagined Beings: A 21st Century Bestiary, by Caspar Henderson, is less of an encyclopedia about earth’s fauna and more of a collection of essays on history, humanity and the relation between humans and nature.

Prompted by some of the most exquisite beings known to humans, Henderson does an impressive job at correlating what makes them stand out - be that inherent characteristics or the way they are perceived by humankind - and a study of the human condition. Following the structure of a traditional bestiary, the author takes us on a journey from A to Z on how to appreciate the details of life.

Henderson’s storytelling is aided by Goulbanou Moghaddas beautiful illustrations, as well as some photographs, breaking the walls of texts and providing the reader not only with some rest between pages, but with a deeper insight of what is being said. While the book would still work without the visual aids, it would be, without a doubt, a much less pleasant experience.

Although the title could suggest otherwise, The Book of Barely Imagined Beings: A 21st Century Bestiary is not a book for those looking to know more about the animal kingdom, but for those looking to know more about humanity and how we perceive the world around us. ( )
  Brandac | May 16, 2021 |
After many entranced carpet-hours flipping through the pages of The Grand Medieval Beastiary, I was doing the usual related/recommended book browse on the big ol' evil internet bookseller site, when I spotted this thing. The Borges nod had me interested and the description had me 1-click purchasing with money I didn't have. I don't know much of anything about Caspar Henderson, but this book is one of the best things I've read in quite a while. Using the structure and format of Ancient and Medieval beastiaries, he progresses through the alphabet, focusing on one creature pure chapter. Axolotl, Barrel Sponge, Crown of Thorns Starfish...Yeti Crab, Zebra Fish...etc. He presents current and cutting-edge scientific research on some of the most bizarre and fascinating species on earth, but what makes the book truly incredible, is Henderson's voice, his ability to articulate a kind of child-like naivety about the weird animals with whom we share the planet. I find myself thinking about this book multiple times per day, and people who spend a lot of time with me are likely becoming annoyed with my relating all things to the behaviors of obscure living creatures (and my new-found insistence that Dolphins be granted a representative at the UN). Henderson is able to offer some incredible facts, explain why they are incredible and then convince you that if you were really paying attention, your mind would be even more blown than it is. He causes me to pause and re-examine my relationship to the world around me, to hear an old familiar story with new ears, to open myself up anew to the voices that I've relegated to the background, to retrain my eyes to focus on the objects stuck in the fuzzy periphery. For that, I'm grateful and I look forward to what's next. ( )
  Jetztzeit | May 15, 2020 |
Taking his cue from medieval bestiaries, Caspar Henderson set out to write a modern compendium of beasts, and show, in the process, that truth is a lot weirder than fiction. Forget about your griffons and basilisks, and check out things like the waterbear pictured above (in extreme close-up; they're only about half a millimetre long), the rainbow-coloured spider known as a sparklemuffin, or the aptly named thorny devil.

As so often with books about wildlife, one comes away with the sense that nature has a sexual imagination to make the Marquis de Sade look like a guileless schoolgirl. Turbellarian flatworms, for instance, ‘which are hermaphrodites, engage in spectacular penis fencing, using two phalluses mounted on their chests as weapons with which they attempt to pierce and impregnate each other’. Like prep school. And don't get me started on dolphins. Dolphins are filthy.

Dolphins court and make love the year round, and with lots of foreplay – they rub, caress, mouth and nuzzle each other's genitals. Both males and females have a genital slit, so penetration is possible in both sexes, and the penis, the tip of the nose (the beak), lower jaw, dorsal or pectoral fin, and tail fluke are all used. Female Spinner dolphins have been observed riding ‘tandem’ on each other's dorsal fin, the female beneath inserting her fin into the genital slit of the other and the two swimming together in this position. Spinner dolphins of both sexes sometimes engage in orgies of more than a dozen individuals, known as ‘wuzzles’.

Now we know why the little fuckers are always grinning. Wuzzles! This sounds like something Berlusconi's PA would be asked to set up.

A preponderance of the creatures highlighted in here are marine animals, just because the sea has so many creatures that seem completely bizarre to us, from entire separate phyla of existence.

Still, anyone coming into this book for pure zoological detail might end up disappointed, since Henderson uses his biological sketches as jumping-off points to talk about a whole range of disparate subjects, from early photography to AI to the history of human flight. Some readers have found this frustrating, but – while it's true that he can't get into much of anything in detail – this is an essay technique that should be familiar to most users of Goodreads; there are some people on here, after all, who can write a whole disquisition on neoplatonism or the internal combustion engine while purporting to review The Girl on the Train. Amidst the animal facts, then, are comments like this:

[A]s Umair Haque (2011) argues, there is a massive malfunctioning of the global economy, and at the root of the problem is ‘dumb growth’, which, ‘rather than reflecting enduring wealth creation, largely reflects the transfer of wealth: from the poor to the rich, the young to the old, tomorrow to today, and human beings to corporate persons.’

This may sound beside the point, but in fact it comes to feel like one of the guiding themes of the book. To address non-human animals at all is to address the ongoing ‘sixth extinction’, a grotesque inequality of power and influence to set alongside the economic inequalities listed above, and to which it has a more than incidental connection. This fact, and the human society and culture that has made it possible, are never far from Henderson's thoughts, and in the end to me this made his book stronger rather than weaker. ( )
2 vote Widsith | Sep 20, 2018 |
This book took me longer than usual to read, and the bulk of that length was simply spent savoring the experience. [b: The Book of Barely Imagined Beings|13562662|The Book of Barely Imagined Beings A 21st Century Bestiary|Caspar Henderson|https://images.gr-assets.com/books/1358299908s/13562662.jpg|19138344] is more than simply a bestiary. It combines facts about the various unusual creatures that live, and have lived, on our planet with the lessons we may learn from them, and how they are perceived in day to day life. It is an allegory for better living, and for a greater awareness of the diversity that characterizes our planet and how important it is.

This book has 26 chapters of animals, as well as a forward and conclusion (that concludes very little.) The chapters vary greatly in length, which makes the reading an altogether pleasurable experience. Much is drawn upon from previous chapters, although I do believe it theoretically could be read in any order one desires. I could fully understand wanting to flip to the puffer fish or honey badger chapter first (though my desire was more Quetzocoatlus focused.)

The book, read in order, presents a chronology of creation and how we developed. It shows how much has changed over time, and in turn, how much has remained the same. It's a call to action to appreciate life more fully, and responsibly, and to see beyond first impressions. Even the barrel sponge is something to marvel at, and the eye of a cuttlefish is a thing of beauty. There are wonders all around us, and we should endeavor to keep it that way. ( )
1 vote Lepophagus | Jun 14, 2018 |
The author started from the way the medieval bestiaries tend to be at least as much about vaguely related moral stories as about the animals being described. Big difference: the medieval authors moved on after a few pages. Henderson goes on, and on, and on, and on...

The illustrations may be of some artistic value, but they do not enhance the text, and most are so poorly printed that it is hard to tell what they depict. ( )
1 vote MarthaJeanne | Oct 11, 2016 |
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» Add other authors (2 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Caspar Hendersonprimary authorall editionscalculated
Moghaddas, GolbanouIllustratorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Altmann, PaulineIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Fastner, DanielTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Schalansky, JudithIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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From medieval bestiaries to Borges's Book of Imaginary Beings, we've long been enchanted by extraordinary animals, be they terrifying three-headed dogs or asps impervious to a snake charmer's song. But bestiaries are more than just zany zoology--they are artful attempts to convey broader beliefs about human beings and the natural order. Today, we no longer fear sea monsters or banshees. But from the infamous honey badger to the giant squid, animals continue to captivate us with the things they can do and the things they cannot, what we know about them and what we don't. With The Book of Barely Imagined Beings, Caspar Henderson offers readers a fascinating, beautifully produced modern-day menagerie. But whereas medieval bestiaries were often based on folklore and myth, the creatures that abound in Henderson's book--from the axolotl to the zebrafish--are, with one exception, very much with us, albeit sometimes in depleted numbers. The Book of Barely Imagined Beings transports readers to a world of real creatures that seem as if they should be made up--that are somehow more astonishing than anything we might have imagined. The yeti crab, for example, uses its furry claws to farm the bacteria on which it feeds. The waterbear, meanwhile, is among nature's "extreme survivors," able to withstand a week unprotected in outer space. These and other strange and surprising species invite readers to reflect on what we value--or fail to value--and what we might change. A powerful combination of wit, cutting-edge natural history, and philosophical meditation, The Book of Barely Imagined Beings is an infectious and inspiring celebration of the sheer ingenuity and variety of life in a time of crisis and change.

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